Penn State's Saquon Barkley lifts himself to the top

Penn State's Saquon Barkley lifts himself to the top

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley bobs his head to Drake's "Started at the Bottom" as he stands over a barbell loaded to 380 pounds.

The Penn State running back takes a step back and adjusts his shorts before bending down and taking a firm grip on the bar with both hands. With his chin up, back flat and knees bent, Barkley tugs on the gray steel, searching for just the right amount of tension in his arms.

Up it goes.

Barkley uncoils, and then quickly dips under the weight and back into squat, slipping the bar under his chin and onto his deltoids. His quads bulging, Barkley stands up straight to complete the power clean. He drops the bar to the mat, takes a couple breaths and repeats the feat twice more with relative ease.

A case can be made that Barkley is both the best and strongest running back in college football. To Barkley, he could not be the former without also being the latter. The broken tackles. The razor-sharp cuts that leave linebackers limp. The hurdles over and sprints past defensive backs. Everything Barkley does to send 100,000 Nittany Lions fans into a frenzy at Beaver Stadium can be traced back to the hours he has spent in the weight room, turning his body into a 228-pound NFL prototype.

"I'm a firm believer that the work you put in in the weight room translates to the field," Barkley said. "Some people don't really think it correlates. A lot of people think you have to do football specific stuff and that's true. But I think football is a direct correlation with weightlifting. I think the stuff that you do -- the explosive movements, the leg strength -- helps you finish plays. Helps you break tackles."

Coming off a sophomore season in which he ran for 1,496 yards, scored 22 touchdowns and helped the Nittany Lions finish in the top 10 for the first time since 2009, Barkley was overwhelmingly selected to the AP's preseason All-America team released Tuesday.

Barkley's passion for pumping iron was cultivated in a cement basement with no air conditioning beneath the fieldhouse of his eastern Pennsylvania high school. Whitehall was the smallest school in the state's highest classification when Barkley was there.

Going back to the days when former NFL linebacker and Penn State star Matt Millen played at Whitehall, the Zephyrs have tried to make up the difference in the weight room.

"We were going against bigger schools and teams that had more players and had more opportunities to pick from players so we knew for us to win games we had to push ourselves," Barkley said.

Barkley did not walk into Whitehall as a star. He wasn't one of those kids who flashed NFL potential while dominating youth leagues the way Leonard Fournette did before becoming an All-American at LSU and a first-round draft pick by Jacksonville. Barkley was a talented 160-pounder trying to contribute on both sides of the ball during his first two seasons at Whitehall. After his sophomore season, coach Brian Gilbert challenged Barkley to become a leader in the weight room.

Barkley accepted.

"We finish the weight room, typically guys they come in, they break down, they go home. His offseason going into his junior year, he would say `Who wants to stay after?'" Gilbert said. '"Coach how long you going to stay after?' And they just kept doing workouts after our workouts. And they would go out to the field and do footwork drills. And that would turn into, `Hey, who wants to come in Saturday? Who wants to come in Sunday?'"

Barkley gained 30 pounds and had a breakthrough junior season. It only made him want to do more and it wasn't just the physical gains that changed Barkley's game.

"His confidence level went up because of his strength," Gilbert said.

Barkley went from a hidden-gem who was committed to Rutgers after an early offer to one of the top recruits in Pennsylvania, with Penn State making him a priority. Still, Barkley was listed as only the 14th-best running back in the 2015 recruiting class, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.

On the walls of Penn State's climate-controlled, 13,000-square foot weight room, high above the equipment, hangs the Nittany Lions' scoreboard: Player rankings by position and team-wide of various lifts and speed and agility drills going back to 2013.

Barkley's name is on top of all eight categories on the running back chart. He wants to be top three in each category for all players. On a late spring day, he held the No. 1 spot in half the categories, including a 390-pound power clean. His 600-pound squat ranked third behind only a couple of former Penn State linemen.

"To be able to do that and then go out and run a 4.33 (40-yard dash), that's where it gets like, OK, is this guy from Krypton or is this guy from America?" Penn State strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt said.

Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki had recently knocked Barkley off the broad-jump board with a leap of 10 feet, 11 inches.

"I haven't got over that," Barkley said.

Still, Barkley was feeling pretty good about eventually passing the 445-pound bench press of Austin Johnson, now a 315-pound nose tackle for the Tennessee Titans. Barkley's lifting partner, fellow running back Andre Robinson, said trying to keep up with Barkley is great motivation, even if a little frustrating at times.

Robinson said thought he had a chance to beat Barkley this year on the bench, where Penn State players do as many repetitions of 225 pounds as possible.

"I beat him a couple of weeks, I'd do like one or two reps more than him. And then the last week of spring ball we tested and he did like six more than me out of the blue. Out of nowhere after I'd been doing just as many as him every week," Robinson said. "It's just crazy how he can turn the switch on and get things done."

This all bodes well not just for No. 6 Penn State's season, but for Barkley's NFL draft status as elite running backs are finding themselves valued more of late. Dallas took Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in 2016. This April, Fournette went No. 4 and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey was picked eighth.

Barkley might be an even better prospect.

"The freakish numbers that he puts up in the weight room, all of that shows up on the field," Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said. "There's not a disconnect between how he tests in the weight room and what that performance is and how he applies it on the field."

Back in June, Galt and Penn State coach James Franklin had decided that Barkley's one-rep power clean max of 390 pounds was good enough. There was no need to let him to do more even though he probably could. Barkley seemed cool with that.

"We're football players, we're not power lifters," he said.

Two weeks later, Barkley did 405.

Former Penn State, NFL DT Brandon Noble takes his turn to help amid coronavirus outbreak

Former Penn State, NFL DT Brandon Noble takes his turn to help amid coronavirus outbreak

Former Penn State and NFL defensive tackle Brandon Noble is taking the lessons he learned during his football career and applying them to the fight against the coronavirus. Noble, who owns the Bright Spot Cafe in Exton, Pennsylvania, along with his partners Tommy and Shannon Brower, is delivering meals to healthcare workers at various hospitals.

The idea originated from a phone call and took on a life of its own.

"A friend of Tommy called and asked if we could put together a lunch for the nurses at Paoli Hospital," Noble said in an interview Monday with NBC Sports Philadelphia's John Clark. "This guy had a friend who worked there and he just wanted to send them a meal. So we did it, we took it down there and we saw the appreciation from the staff at the hospital that they had a hot meal individually packaged and rolled up to the door for them.

"You can just see it in their eyes because everyone is obviously wearing masks now. It kind of snowballed from there, people are calling us, reaching out to us and they're asking to buy meals for different hospitals and wings of different departments. It's really cool."

Noble and his partners have delivered about 2,000 meals over the last two weeks. He's urging people to get involved and donate money and meals by visiting his restaurant's website — brightspotexton.com. The restaurant is matching all donations in an effort to support and feed as many healthcare workers as possible.

"Playing football for as long as I did, I've had plenty of surgeries, I've had the health issues, I've been in the hospital," Noble said. "I understand how important these people are and right now they're under a lot of stress. There's a lot going on, they're laying it on the line every day for the rest of us. So going in and helping them out, absolutely it feels good. One thing about this country, the people here, we take care of each other."

Noble pointed to one health scare in particular from his playing career that greatly impacted his view of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers. 

"I was one of the first guys in the NFL to get MRSA back in 2004," Noble said. "I had a routine operation and I woke up a few days later and I had this really bad hot spot in my knee and it kind of escalated from there. I ended up being unconscious in my living room during my daughter's 2nd birthday party. My mother-in-law is a nurse and she told my wife to take me to the hospital. They rolled me into the emergency room and the doctors told us if we had waited another 12 hours I would have lost my leg and I might have died.

"I spent 10 days in the hospital getting taken care of. I was a professional athlete, a football player, 6-foot-2 and 320 pounds and I couldn't walk without help. Those people kept me alive. So I have a tremendous amount of respect for them and what they do. They're taking care of people who are scared, who are hurt, who are in a bit of an unknown situation right now."

Noble lives in Chester Springs and is the defensive coordinator at Downingtown East High School. He's teaching his players the same lessons about football he learned long ago, lessons that led him to take action during these uncertain times. 

"Football is one of those great places where there are people from all over, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, all sorts of family backgrounds, different geographic locations," Noble said. "You're all thrown into this room and you're told that you're going to win or lose depending on the guy next to you. How can you help that guy? How can you be there when it's your turn to help? 

"That's what football is all about. It's a great team sport, the best team sport. It teaches those of us who play it and coach it that's it all about the guy next to you. If you love the guy next to you and he loves you, you're going forward and great things will happen." 

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No. 21 Penn State beats No. 23 Iowa at packed Palestra

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USA Today Images/Bill Streicher

No. 21 Penn State beats No. 23 Iowa at packed Palestra

BOX SCORE

Izaiah Brockington scored 23 points to lead No. 21 Penn State to its fifth straight win, 89-86 over No. 23 Iowa on Saturday at the Palestra.

Luka Garza scored 34 points for the Hawkeyes (10-4, 1-2 Big Ten), but he missed three crucial free throws down the stretch that helped the Nittany Lions win in front of a raucous home crowd on Philly's most famous court. Garza, who scored 44 points last month at Michigan, scored 12 straight points in one stretch in the first half but missed two foul shots with 3:21 left in the game and Iowa clinging to a two-point lead.

Curtis Jones put Penn State in front with a 3-pointer that rocked the building. Garza went 1 of 2 from the line to even the score at 79-all, but Mike Watkins delivered for PSU with a go-ahead dunk. Penn State forced a turnover and Lamar Stevens sealed it with a late layup.

Stevens and Myreon Jones each scored 16 points for the Nittany Lions (12-2, 2-1).

Penn State coach Pat Chambers might finally have a team he can take to the NCAA Tournament in his ninth season.

Penn State might want to petition to play all its Big Ten games at the Palestra. The Nittany Lions got the best of Iowa and coach Fran McCaffery, a former Penn standout who played home games at the Palestra.

Penn State barely averaged an announced attendance of 10,000 fans last season at its on-campus arena, the Bryce Jordan Center. But 193 miles down the road at the Palestra, the heart of Philly hoops, the steamy gym was packed. Tickets on the secondary market were going for $150 a seat in the corners - or, "Corners! as its known when the Palestra is sold out -- and fans arrived early to walk the concourse that serves as much as a hall of fame as it does a stop for a $4 hot dog.

Walk past the pictures of Kobe Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain in their high school uniforms, and there's a photo of McCaffery in his No. 23 Penn jersey. The caption read, "Fran McCafferty, 1979-82, was integral in three Ivy League Championship titles for the Quakers." McCaffery walked in the same concourse doors Saturday as fans and fist-bumped a row of black-and-gold wearing supporters. Yes, even an Ivy League school can't ace spelling -- there's no T in McCaffery -- and McCaffery left with another unwanted letter: an L.

Penn State alumni roared "We Are!" from the opening tip and the Palestra decibel meter hit 11 when the Nittany Lions seemed poised to break the game open. Seth Lundy and Myles Dread hit 3s, Stevens turned a steal into a fast-break layup and another Penn State steal ended with a Stevens dunk and a 35-27 lead. Iowa collected itself and Dread's jumper to end the half gave the Hawkeyes a 39-38 lead.

Stevens sparked the idea of PSU making a return trip to Palestra. A graduate of Philadelphia's Roman Catholic High School, Stevens badgered Chambers about playing a game at the Palestra before his career ended. He surely could not have imagined a showdown between two nationally ranked teams going basket-for-basket in front of a packed house once Iowa agreed to play in Philly.

Big picture

Iowa: The Hawkeyes can only hope this kind of loss won't cost them an NCAA Tournament bid.

Penn State: Penn State played its first game as a ranked team against a ranked team for the first time since 1996. Chambers found little success over his first eight seasons, and has failed to lead the program to the NCAA Tournament. But powered by a deep, veteran roster, the Nittany Lions cracked the Top 25 this season for the first time since March 1996.

Up next

Iowa plays Tuesday at Nebraska.

Penn State plays Tuesday at Rutgers.